Putting citizens back into journalism



July 17th, 2009

Paper presented at the 18th Annual Conference of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC), Delhi, 14 July 2009. The term ‘citizen journalism’ is somewhat paradoxical. Why do we consider it meaningful to distinguish ‘citizen journalism’ from just plain ‘journalism’? Journalism, in principle, is supposed to be of citizens, for citizens and by citizens. So the fact that the term ‘citizen journalism’ has gained such global currency suggests that there is a widespread acknowledgement – even among professional journalists – that journalism as we’ve known it somehow does not merit the ‘citizen’ prefix. Embedded in our use of this term, therefore, is a critique of journalism’s democratic performance, an implicit accusation that journalism fails to live up to its democratic promise.

Today, I’d like to look at how the citizen got taken out of journalism, and how we might put her back in. I will argue that we will probably see some convergence between mainstream and citizen journalism, but, as with most aspects of social life, diversity can be a strength: the journalistic landscape we should wish for and work towards is a mixed one, with a diverse range of institutions and individuals doing journalism.

But, first, I should explain how I use the word ‘journalism’ and its associated terms. I define journalism as the use of observation, investigation and analysis to report and comment on current affairs, in order to serve the public’s need to make sense of complexity and change. This definition says something about the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of journalism – and also the ‘why’.

Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times, said here yesterday that teaching his young journalists how to do journalism was the easy part. The struggle is keeping them focused on why. At least, an editor like Kunda tries. Most news organisations have been distracted by the pursuit of shareholder value, and have allowed advertisers to dictate which readers matter and why. Serving  citizens’ information needs has become secondary to serving the market’s need to stimulate consumption.

However, it takes two to bring the citizen and journalism together. Conscientious journalists want to serve the public interest, but the painful truth is that the public is not particularly interested in being served. Sure, everyone agrees society needs quality journalism, but not enough people are willing to pay for it. Journalism is thus a classic case of market failure. For more than a century, this cruel fact has been glossed over by convenient happenstance: citizens have been the spared the bill for the full cost of journalism. First, journalism enjoyed a massive subsidy in the form of advertising revenue. Second, journalism was bundled in a format, called the newspaper, that also contained entertainment and information that had little to do with journalism’s democratic mission. The non-journalism in newspapers cross-subsidised the journalism. This bundling meant that people who were actually buying a newspaper for its television listings, celebrity gossip, weather report, its crossword puzzle, cartoons, classified ads and so on would incidentally get their daily dose of journalism.

This happy period is fast disappearing. Advertisers are less willing to subsidise journalism because they have alternative ways to reach their market. And the bundle of information, education and entertainment that was the newspaper is quickly getting disaggregated. With niche magazines, cable TV, and specialised websites, people no longer need newspapers to find out what’s on TV, to find a job, to play Sudoku or whatever. The fixed-price set meal, of which journalism was a nutritious part, is being replaced by an a la carte menu, from which most consumers seem to prefer pick more appetising or cheaper fare, leaving quality journalism on the shelf. To have a journalism worthy of democratic society, citizens must – for probably the first time in history – be persuaded that professional journalism is worth paying for.

Or is there another way? Could we do journalism in such a cost-effective way that we are no longer hostage to high-priced professional products? Perhaps we could take the practice of journalism out of its elite institutions and return it to the people; let the wisdom of the crowds serve the public’s need to make sense of complexity and change. In other words, do what has come to be called ‘citizen journalism’.

There are, of course, some serious misgivings about what passes off as citizen journalism. A lot of the pseudo-news that people are sharing is voyeuristic or trivial. It might be called citizen reporting, but I don’t see how we can call it ‘journalism’ any more than we would the conversations on a bus.

On the other hand, there are certain types of content generated by non-professional journalists that is as good as or even better than what the professionals produce. One such category is the expert blog. Professional journalists are invariably generalists, and we all know of instances where even a quite competent journalist writes an article on a particular topic only to have it torn apart by experts in that field. Now, the experts are striking back. Not content with what they see as the shallowness of mainstream media reports, frustrated by how their input as sources are reduced to soundbites, these experts are cutting out the middleman and reaching out directly to the public. The blogs of some financial analysts are giving the business pages of the mainstream press a run for their money. In Singapore, for example, financial bloggers Leong Sze Hian and Tan Kin Lian have credentials that no journalist in the mainstream press can match. This is where I disagree with Vincent Mosco’s otherwise very instructive remarks yesterday: yes, expertise matters, but it is not the case that professional journalists have a monopoly on expertise.

Second, civil society groups and NGOs are already playing a role within their areas of interest that resembles investigative journalism. Indeed, like the individual experts, these groups bring to their writing a degree of domain knowledge and sustained focus that most of the largely superficial and fickle mainstream media cannot match. The press recognises this, which is why credible and competent NGOs have always been important sources of news. With the new media tools, however, NGOs are not totally dependent on the professional gatekeepers of the press to get their views out. They can do journalism for themselves.

Third, there are some topics that attract large constituencies of passionate fans, including talented amateur writers who would quite happily write reviews for free on their own dedicated blogs. Thus, topics traditionally associated with the professional critic or reviewer working for newspapers and magazines – sports, the arts, food, consumer electronics and IT, travel, and so on – now generate high quality content from non-professionals. Indeed, many of these citizen or consumer websites are superior to what newspapers offer, both in terms of their scope and their quality. This could be because of individual superfans who have more in-depth knowledge of a particular domain than the professional journalist. For example, even a newspaper with a relatively large team of 10 sports reporters is unlikely to have, say, a full-time archery or mountain biking correspondent who could match a dedicated fan who can also write. Even when there is no single fan with that ability, the collective contributions of a community of fans often beat what a single journalist can produce. Travel reviews and forums on Tripadvisor.com, for example, are generally more reliable than reviews found in newspapers.

For all its impressive progress, citizen journalism has severe limitations. One is that citizen journalists are not trained journalists and may therefore lack the skills and ethics to be worthy of the name. This is the criticism we hear most often from professional journalists, and also, to my mind, the least persuasive. Even as a professional journalist and journalism educator myself, I have to admit that journalism is not rocket science; it can be learnt by emulation and experience. It is easier for, say, an environmental law expert to learn how to write like a journalist, than for a journalist to learn how to do environmental law.

Although most bloggers don’t bother to, but some committed citizen journalists are voluntarily adopting some of professional journalism’s best qualities in order to expand their reach. They are paying more attention to their writing style and presentation, learning to be more concise and less verbose, for example. They are also learning to deal with the fact that not everyone shares their perspectives and that the challenge is precisely to persuade those that don’t, rather than preach to the converted. This may require grounding their claims in facts instead of making sweeping unsupported statements. In such ways, they are trying to cultivate their reputations as credible communicators. All this is the traditional terrain of professional journalists, but the professionals have no monopoly over it.

The second limitation for citizen journalism is harder to surmount: it is incomplete in scope. There are large areas of democratic life that are not covered adequately either by fans, experts or NGOs. We will always need professional journalists to cover the work of parliaments and local government and various government agencies, if for no other reason that no citizen in her right mind would choose to bore herself covering such meetings and reports unless someone paid her to. Commercially driven news organisations have traditionally provided that service, and if they cut back on their reporting staffs society will need to think about how fill the gap. Free content from citizen journalists will not be enough. We may need some kind of non-profit public service journalism service.

The third inadequacy of citizen journalism is that it does not provide the shared space for national dialogue that democracy requires. This was referred to by Kiran Karnik yesterday as the downside of the proliferation of niche media that we as consumers enjoy as a huge enhancement to quality of life. Democracy requires the freedom for individual self-expression, but democracy is fundamentally about collective self-determination. This entails a conversation in which people listen and not just speak. Only then can we, as diverse, crowded societies, resolve differences and make decisions together without killing each other. Newspapers, for all their weakneses, are still the most important fora for national conversations, in which citizens to hear the most relevant and important news and views they need to understand one another.

For these reasons, I do not believe that the welcome growth of citizen journalism absolves us from the responsibility of improving mainstream journalism. And when I say ‘us’ I mean not just us the media professionals who run the news media but also us as citizens. Robin Mansell yesterday asked, ‘What kind of media are wanted by citizens?’ I would add the follow-up question, ‘What kind of media that we want are we also prepared to pay for?’ Our days of being free riders are almost over. If we say that journalism is indispensable for democracy, we need to put our money where our mouths are.

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